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Nets’ defense has turned it around on western swing

Trail Blazers forward Noah Vonleh, left, Nets guard Spencer

Trail Blazers forward Noah Vonleh, left, Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, center and Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, battle for a rebound during a game in Portland on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. Credit: AP / Steve Dykes

SALT LAKE CITY — When they boarded the plane for Los Angeles on Nov. 2, the Nets were heading west for five games and packing a four-game losing streak. Whether or not they admit it, the overarching fear was that they might return with a nine-game losing streak, given their non-existent defense.

But they reached Saturday night’s game against the Jazz with a 2-2 record on the trip, including their first two road wins of the season and their first two times holding an opponent under 100 points. Their win over the weak Suns on Monday was a confidence-booster, but beating the Trail Blazers on Friday with a stellar defensive effort that contained high-scoring guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum was solid evidence of progress.

“It’s a sign of growth,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said Friday. “We were struggling. Even in Phoenix, I don’t think we were hitting on all cylinders. I felt like tonight it was back to the team I saw in preseason that I felt was making strides. I feel a lot better about the group after tonight’s performance.”

There was a lot to like. Coming off his eight-turnover horror show in Tuesday’s loss in Denver, D’Angelo Russell reprised his stellar fourth-quarter effort in Phoenix by completing the Portland win with 11 points in the Nets’ closing 17-8 run.

“He had nine assists, two turnovers,” Atkinson said of Russell, who totaled 21 points. “I thought he read the game well and picked his spots. It seems like the games where we’ve done well offensively, he picks his spots. He waits until the end to really go to work in the pick-and-roll, and before that, he gets everybody else involved. I thought he did a nice job of balancing that out.”

The Nets’ energetic defense ultimately was the key, especially when they played small because big men Trevor Booker, Tyler Zeller and Jarrett Allen were out. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who made a key steal in the final minute with the Nets protecting a one-point lead, played 38:38, including the entire fourth quarter, despite a painful hip contusion.

“I couldn’t take him out of the game,” Atkinson said. “He was out there I don’t know how long — two straight quarters [21:49 in the second half]. We thought about getting him a rest. He was playing too well and too good defensively for us to take him out. That’s the ultimate compliment.”

For the Nets, winning in Phoenix was one thing, but outplaying the Trail Blazers was truly positive reinforcement.

“It’s just knowing that we can do it,” Russell said. “Keep feeding off it, keep building off the energy. Last time we had a back-to-back, we struggled really bad [in a loss to Denver]. So taking the challenge to capitalize two in a row on a back-to-back, it’s going to be tough going into Utah, but we’re definitely capable.”

Guard Allen Crabbe, who is known for his shooting, worked hard on defense to contain McCollum. “They made their runs, but we stayed resilient,” Crabbe said of the Nets’ defensive effort. “We stuck together and we made the plays that we needed to make. For us, it was growth, and hopefully we can stay consistent with that and take that over to Utah and get one.”

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